Artist’s Notes on the OMG Bencher

David Moss

The first version of the Bencher was done as a set of large posters that each school in our Teachers Institute for the Arts received as an educational tool kit. It was accompanied by a set of questions that could prompt students to study the Bencher more carefully, think about its content and focus more on its meaning when they recited the Birkat HaMazon. The students were also challenged to use the style of The OMG Bencher and apply it to other texts by considering their meaning and giving the bold graphic expression.

Below I’ve written notes that reveal some of the design thinking that went into the Bencher.

Front Cover

Two images borrowed from Psalm 126:2 on page 2 are displayed above.

I had considered calling the work the The Giggle-Mouthed and Happy-Tongued Bencher. One of my goals for this little book was to use the art to express the joy and delight of the blessings and the gratitude they embody. But, in the end I couldn’t resist the current title:The OMG Bencher . And thus is it named.

The question came up early about how to make it possible to customize the Bencher for a Simcha. I solved this with the little book at the bottom and its request:

“May The Merciful One Bless:
The one who blesses from this Bencher.”

The idea was that a sticker could be added in the central white space, thus not only recognizing a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or a newly wedded couple, but invoking a blessing for them.

The size of the white rectangle also perfectly fits a standard calling card. Used this way the bencher would be an effective way to insure that your business card would never be tossed out.

The two hands at the bottom are both yours and mine. The whole Bencher was conceived as a personal extension of the one reciting its texts. So this little book suggests that you, the Bencher (the one who recited the blessings) are holding the Bencher (booklet) in your own hands. I conceived of the speech bubbles of the translation throughout the book in the same way. They emerge from you!

At the same time, the hands are my hands (for which I’m always exceptionally grateful) handing over the book to you, both to wish all blessings upon you and to share my art with you.

Inside Front Cover

The actual text of the Birkat HaMazon begins on page 6. There are some preliminaries, however, that come before that. We start with the HaMotzi—the blessing over the bread. In general, it is bread that establishes our eating as a full meal and triggers the obligation to recite the full Birkat HaMazon after the meal.

Before we eat bread, we wash our hands and recite the well-known HaMotzi blessing. This is written out at the top of the page.

However, the words that end this short prayer (“Who brings bread forth from the earth”) are so strange that it felt like it demanded some consideration. So I’ve given voices to the slices of bread growing on the sheaves of wheat to point out the obvious problem with this blessing and to propose a possible solution.

[What’s your explanation of the words of HaMotzi? What would be the dialogue that you would have had the bread slices say to explain your idea?]

On a weekday, if you’re benching alone, you would begin on page 6. If you’re benching with a group, you’d start on page 5.

If it’s a Shabbat or Yom Tov, it’s customary to preface the Benching with Psalm 126 which begins on Page 1.

Page 1

As the hands holding the book on the cover are your hands, the speech bubbles containing the translation at the bottom of the pages are your speech bubbles. The tails always point to you. Without you opening the bencher, holding it, without you reciting its words and singing its songs of praise, this comic book is merely, well, a comic book.

The Psalm begins with the word for “Song” written as musical notes.

The word I translated as “uplifting” is often rendered as ascents or degrees. The word means steps and its letters climb up the steps just as the phrase “God returned” shows the descent of God’s presence down the stairs to us.

The final letter nun in “returned us to Zion” surrounds the phrase and becomes the crenellations of the walled-in old city of Jerusalem.

Many cartoonish thought clouds float aloft containing the phrase: “We must be totally dreaming.”

Page 2

I emphasize the repeated words “אז”—”then.”

The peh of “our mouths” giggles and is echoed by other giggling mouths to its right. The long extended tongue of the lamed of “לשונינו”—”our tongues,” is filled with repetitions of the word “joy.”

To suggest the traditional seventy nations of the world I wrote the phrase “Is that ever awesome what God did for them!” on signs in seven different languages [Can you identify them?] and planted each in a country on the globe. Each ends with an asterisk and, indeed, at the bottom the footnote translates each phrase into the original Hebrew.

A recurring theme in the book of Psalms is that all nations of the world recognize universal divine truths. It’s fascinating that indeed the Psalter itself has been translated into hundreds and hundreds of languages and is sung throughout the earth.

[Why do you think the acknowledgement of God and Israel is important in the Psalms and throughout the Bible?]

Page 3

The first word is very large because it means “He made great…” I translated it as “awesome.”

The shin in the word “excited” or “joyous” smiles broadly.

Below the streams pour out from the word “streams” and flood the border. The word “in a desert” is made out of desert stones.

Page 4

The contrast between how we were once so unhappy, planting in tears, but now are so happy in our harvest is indicated by the two faces above. The planted and harvested sheaf of wheat sprouts joyously out of one of the letters of the word “their sheaves.”

The prefaced Psalm 126 ends here.

Page 5

This page contains the formulas for the invitation to begin the Benching that is recited when there are three or more or ten or more blessing together. The upper part is for the three participants (red leader and blue followers) and the lower part is for ten or more participants (the orange leader and the yellow followers). The little faces in front of or at the end of each line of text indicates to you who is reciting it or if it’s repeated.

Page 6

The actual text of the Birkat HaMazon begins here with a joyous celebratory opening of fruits and flowers being showered down and filling our world.

Page 7

Final descending nuns of “grace” and “giving” join upward reaching lameds of “us” and transform into the staff of life.

Page 8

In God’s big GREAT NAME at the top the upper vowels hang from the extended lamed.

The nun of “grace” merges with the peh of “sustenance.”

The weird little creatures form the word “his creatures.”

Page 9

The lamed and final caph of “to you” serve as the vertical dividers of the page.

The “land” has a map of Israel.

The word “s-p-a-c-i-o-u-s” or “wide” is widened.

Page 10

Page 11

An Egyptian pyramid and an Egyptian prison frame the double spread in which we express gratitude for God taking us out of that land and the bondage our ancestors suffered there.

The words “House of Slavery” are the sign on the prison.

[Is the mem a weathervane? What is it shaped like? What does it mean?]

 

 

 

 

Page 12

On this page we thank God for the covenant of circumcision, the Torah and Laws and Life and Grace and Love.

The word “which you sealed” or “marked” is made like a typical First Temple Hebrew seal, many of which have been unearthed.

The flowers in the upper section are shaped like the little protective shield that the Mohel uses. I just couldn’t resist the “piercing” translation.

The words about Torah appear in a Torah scroll. And the words “and for your Laws” conveniently appear in alphabetical order and early in the alphabet so I could write them within the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Page 13

At the top of this page appears the blessing for our food and constant sustenance.

On the plate we’re served up the famous yummy Seven Kinds of food for which the Land of Israel is especially praiseworthy: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives for oil and dates for honey (Deuteronomy 8:8).

And how convenient that the last letters of the word “food” and the first letter of “which you” happen to look like a spoon, knife and fork laid out in the accepted manner according to table etiquette.

[Do you think this is an accident? Would you have noticed it?]

Originally the silverware was all in white. But then I added the gray to make them stand out more.

[Is this cheating?]

At the bottom are the special prayers added during Chanukah and Purim. I wanted to make the images for Chanukah and Purim similar so I made them both in the same format of a central vertical column flanked by repeated images at the bottom. In the Chanukah prayer this format becomes a Chanukah menorah with the Shamash as the vertical. In the Purim prayer are the gallows hanging Haman above and his sons below.

Page 14

This page begins with the words for “totally everything, we’re grateful to You” surrounding the whole world with God’s name right in the center.

The arrow show the prayers of all living things eternally raised upward towards God.

The words “the mouth of every single living thing” made me think that even plants and flowers must somehow have mouths to sing praises. The remarkable very ancient Midrash, Perek Shirah, carries this idea further and shows how all the living and even non-living created beings praise God, each with its own special verse.

In the large open yellow book I quote the original biblical verse (Deuternomony 8:10) on which the entire commandment of the Birkat HaMazon is based. “When you eat and are satisfied, then you must bless the Lord your God for the good land God gave to you.”

But rather than just quote the one verse that’s stated in the Benching, I’ve written it out in its original context from the Torah. I’ve just made the verses that come before and after small and without vowels and the verse itself large and vocalized so you know that’s what you’re supposed to recite.

Page 15

I’ve used the ascending lameds and the descending final tzadi and nun to divide up the space on this page. The lameds frame God’s Name above. And below, the special seven Biblical plants are on the left and other trees on the right.

Page 16

Page 17

As we ask for special favor, the opening text arches across both pages.

The repeating word “and for” divides up the structure of this blessing, so I let it also divide up the space allotted to it. In each case the lamed reaches upward and downward to separate each of the five things we request special favor for: The Jewish People (shown as twelve tribes), The City of Jerusalem (with its little buildings), the dwelling place of God’s glory in Zion (glory is often visualized as a cloud, The Kingdom of David, the anointed (he’s seen getting his olive oil anointing), and the Holy Temple with the yods of God’s name covering it.

Page 18

This blessing begins with seven words each ending in “nu”—”our.” They describe different aspects of our relationship to God. The number seven suggested the Menorah structure so I wrote them out as branches of a Menorah. The first letter of each word is the flame at the top. In the Temple Menorah, the three right and left flames inclined toward the central straight flame. The root of the word is in the yellow branches and the common shared “nu” flanks the Menorah. The Temple Menorah was decorated with “כפתור ופרח”—”buttons and flowers.” The vowels are therefore made like little buttons and flowers.

“Our enemies,” from whom we request salvation, are buried out of harm’s way in the earth among the roots of the tree.

Page 19

Here we request that we neither be dependent on gifts from the hands of human beings nor on loans from their hands so I showed these human hands holding up the texts.

Page 20

As opposed to the human hands (plural) that on the previous page we ask not to depend on, here we submit ourselves to the Divine hand. I noticed the double five-part structure of the words of the prayer so included the two sets of words in the fingers of the hands that cascade down from above.

Page 21

This page contains the special added prayers for Shabbat and the Holidays. Since these are cyclical events recurring in weekly or annual cycles, I decided to use the circle as a common motif throughout.

Above, the six colored circles show the busy six days of the workweek, each with its distinctive coloration. But these days all serve as a wreath to surround and crown the large, central, white Shabbat circle that contains the special prayer for Shabbat.

Below, I sought to make a circular logo or emblem for each holiday. The sliver of the new moon is for Rosh Chodesh. The round hand-made matzah stands for Passover. The seven times seven clock of counting the Omer leads to Shavuot. The little Etrog symbolizes Sukkot. The Simchat Torah flag flags Shemini Atzeret. And the pomegranate announces Rosh HaShanah. (It serves a double purpose as below it reminds us to add the word “The King” on Rosh Hashana.)

Page 22

Those of us who live in Jerusalem are constant witnesses to its rebuilding. The joke is that the Crane is the national bird and indeed, the pace of building in Israel is phenomenal. A friend of ours in the construction business said he’s never seen such feverish construction as here.

Here I made the building blocks of the prayer (the words) look like ancient trimmed Herodian stones that form a wall. At the top of the page, Jerusalem itself is being gently lowered as if from heaven to earth as we still dream about building a place and society which somehow better reflects the Divine.

I’ve placed the whole structure firmly on a strong and hearty AMEN that concludes this original part of the Birkat HaMazon. This is, I believe, the only place where—at least in Ashkenazic tradition—we say “Amen” to our own blessing.

Page 23

By changing the pattern of recitation of the last two lines I was able to bring the two names for the third Patriarch together at the bottom. In doing this, it allowed me to allude to the etymology of the names, their meaning and their origins in the biblical text. The foot/leg symbolism here is central.

In Genesis 25, we’re told that the twins Jacob and Esau struggled within the womb. Jacob (Ya’akov) is born grasping the heel of his brother, presumably in an attempt to be the firstborn. So the name Jacob is based on the word “Ekev”—”heel.” I therefore wrote out the word Ya’akov to be part of the heel in the image.

The brothers continue to struggle over the status of the firstborn in stories of bartered porridge and furry disguises where through trickery Jacob gets his father’s deathbed blessing. But the struggle doesn’t cease. Jacob receives another name just before he is again to encounter his brother in Genesis 32. Here he wrestles fiercely with a super-angel, is wounded seriously in his thigh and is given the name “Yisrael”—”Israel,” for he “struggled with man and God and prevailed.”

I brought the two names together in the foot, connecting the kuf of “Yaakov” and the aleph of “Israel” and traced the path up the foot to the thigh where the lameds reach out to pinpoint the site of the battlefield wound—the sciatic nerve.

Page 24

The mem in “Melech”—”King” is crowned.

On this page I noticed that twice the kind acts of God toward us are stated in the past, present and future. I wanted to show this interesting literary formulation graphically so I made the two root words (Good and Nice) large and inscribed the various vowels that make the word apply to all three tenses around the three letter root. The three letter root for the word I’ve translated as ‘”Nice”—”Gimel Mem Lamed” is also the word for camel” so I built it out of a little camel.

I used the same color scheme for past (yellow) present (purple) and future (yellow) for both words. Where they all came together in the chiriq under the tet I made this vowel out of all three colors.

These large words are proceeded by the word “Hu”—”He” and followed by “Lanu/Nu”—”us.” I’ve lined up these twelve in front of and behind central root words.

Page 25

The long, almost breathless, list of the delightful blessings that we’re constantly showered with suggested pure joy to me. And the symbol of joy is wine. So I gathered them all into a rich juicy cluster of grapes just waiting to be harvested and turned into yummy wine.

Page 26

The little praying hands at the bottom connect to each of the seven prayers to “HaRachaman”—”The Kind One” above.

For each individual request in the prayer bubbles I made a symbolic border design.

[Can you figure them out?]

Oh well, I’ll tell you:

  • “Rule over us forever!”…crowns.
  • “Be Blessed in heaven and earth!”…stars and trees.
  • “Be praised for generations, honored for all times and viewed as amazing forever.”…the infinity sign.
  • “Let us succeed or provide for us.”…bread slices.
  • “Lead us to our land.”…Magen David stars for Israel.
  • “Bless our house and table.”…houses and tables.
  • “Send the Prophet Elijah to announce redemption.”…His shofar.

[How many did you get?]

Page 27

This page comtinues the HaRachaman requests of a more personal nature in which we pray for blessings for our parents, ourselves, our mates, our hosts.

The first prayers—for our parents, the masters of this house—I placed in a little house. For this one and the following two for our mates, I had originally used the standard western symbols for male and female at the bottom. But due, I suppose, to excessive straurophobia, some early readers objected to the female symbol. So I changed them to the aboriginal symbols for male and female. I’m hoping that this will widen the Australian market for this comic.

At the bottom, I’ve used the eyes first together and then separately looking up and down to represent: “Let us be seen as cool in the eyes of God and other people.”

Page 28

The six squares on the page continue the ‘HaRachaman’ prayers. This time for special occasions—Shabbat and holidays.

This time, the common graphic element in which I sought to express each occasion was a crescent. At the top of each prayer I placed the crescent logo.

[Can you figure them all out?]

Here they are:

  • The Shabbat candlesticks for Shabbat
  • The word ‘Tov” written out for Yom Tov = holidays.
  • The sliver of the new moon for Rosh Chodesh = The new month.
  • The Shofar for Rosh HaShana.
  • The word ‘David’ built like a little Sukkah for Sukkot which mentions ‘the fallen Sukkah of David (The Temple).”
  • A Shofar for the days of the Messiah and the world to come. Elijah announces the Messiah with a Shofar.

Page 29

The final phrases and verses of the Benching are concluded on this page.

They open with two variants of the first word: “Magdil” and “Migdol.” The tradition is to pronounce it as “Magdil” on regular days and “Migdol” on Shabbat and Yom Tov. I placed the vocalization for both words around the same consonants with “Magdil” in brown and “Migdol” in white.

I allude to both meanings in the illustration. “Migdol” means “tower” so the page is designed like the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem with a tower in the middle at the top.

The meaning of “Magdil” is “He magnifies” so the whole central image is an inverted magnifying glass where the subsequent texts are examined closely in their original contexts. I copied each of these from antique books and placed the verses we recite in white and the surrounding texts in color.

Page 30

This page is devoted to the English translations of the four pages in the Bencher with long texts that didn’t fit at the bottom of the page. Reduced images of the pages themselves are reproduced at the top to help you find them quickly.

Page 31

This page contains the text of the traditional Seven Marriage Blessings recited at the Chupah. But it also is an essential addition to the Birkat HaMazon at the festive meal after the wedding and every day at the celebratory feasts honoring the newlyweds for seven days. Overflowing cups of blessings are used as a different guest recites each blessing for the couple.

The format of the page is like that of a Ketubah—the Jewish marriage contract. It’s a fitting ending for the Bencher since it was with the revival of the illuminated marriage contract that I began my career almost fifty years ago. There had been a very rich tradition of hundreds of years of making the Ketubah as a beautiful illuminated manuscript. This tradition had died out and the Ketubah had become a simple, printed form filled in by the rabbi before the wedding. In the late sixties and early seventies I began reviving this tradition and it has now turned into a little industry with probably hundreds of Ketubah artists.

 

Page 32

I wanted to summarize this work by giving some broad perspective on the Birtkat HaMazon and the objectively somewhat radical idea of gratitude itself and the giving of thanks to God for the gifts we’ve received. To do this I imagined a world that didn’t have this notion and created this little science fiction story imagining an extraterrestrial origin for this little booklet.

Inside Back Cover

On this page I relate a bit about how this work came about and the lovely story of how its first printing got sponsored.

The bottom of the page includes information about my other works and the copyright notices.

It concludes with the traditional phrase used to end traditional Hebrew books.

Finished and completed with praise to God, the Creator of the universe.

Back Cover

The little camel from page 24 trudges out of the book and has a brief conversation with its companion to remind the English reader that this is a Hebrew book and therefore begins at the other end.

I conclude with a somewhat academic tongue-in-cheek review of the book with both its flaws and benefits.